You don’t. You definitely, absolutely, 100% do not have to write every day to be a writer.
So why do some writers claim you do? Because they do. It’s fabulous that they can sit down and write every single day of their life. Plenty of successful authors do that. Plenty of successful authors don’t.
If a daily schedule works for you, beautiful. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Like athletes, many of us need breaks to recover, adapt, recharge, and prevent burn out.
Want some proof? I don’t write every day, and I managed to live entirely off my writing for many years. Of course, one could argue - on a bad day I could argue – that I could be more productive or more successful or more skilled. Perhaps if I wrote every day, I’d be a better writer. Who knows?
Recently, I met an aspiring novelist who’d bought her college prof’s age-old dictum and believed she couldn’t call herself a writer until she started writing every day. I told her that was crazy talk, but then I started to wonder. Maybe this bit of advice persists for a reason, and maybe I should find a way to make that happen come hell or high water.
I wondered what my writing life would be like if I could hire a nanny or if I decided to stop mentoring newer writers. (Which, of course I would never do because I love it waaaaay too much.) Nonetheless, I wanted to know how many writers are living up to that proverbial ideal.
A survey of authors reveals….
Completely unscientifically, I surveyed 15 of my author friends, all of whom are traditionally published, some of whom are outrageously prolific literary stars. Only one – Natashia Deon, author of the luminous novel Grace, a New York Times Best Book of the Year – said she makes a point to write every single day, though sometimes it might only be a sentence and not related to her main project.
Some write almost every day, others every week day, and some have more limited writing time but never miss a scheduled session, however they might be fitting those in.
Basically, apart from Natashia and a new mom who said, “I write, never,” I got variations on a theme. Whether it’s because they’re passionate about their projects or because the daily schedule is a such an abiding professional yard stick, most of those surveyed would like to write every day.
In reality, that goal is a bit lofty.
When asked if she writes every day, Elizabeth Crane, author of four story collections and two novels, including We Only Know So Much, which was recently made into a movie starring Jeanne Tripplehorn, said “No, but I’m happier when I do.”
Jennifer Brody, author of The Continuum Trilogy, said “No, but I want to.”
Jill Alexander Essbaum, poet and author of the New York Times Bestselling novel Hausfrau, said, “Jill writes every day, mostly.” (If her phrasing sounds weird, google Hausfrau and you’ll see that she’s hilariously referencing her main character…and, in my opinion, one of the best opening lines ever written in the history of the world.)
Yi Shun Lai, editor of the Tahoma Literary Review and author of Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, said, “In the strict definition I know all new writers mean: No. In the loosey-goosey definition that old-hat writers give themselves credit for, yes.” I asked if she meant writing emails, and she said, “Not just e-mails: my requirements are stricter than that. I ask myself if I put down a fresh new thought that required some crafting and ingenuity. (I don't uuuuusually count facebook posts.) ”
Hmmm. I suddenly started thinking that if defined broadly enough, maybe I do write every day or at least almost every day. Not only that, I wondered if maybe those creative writing professors and authors who claim to write every day aren’t sitting down at their desk and racking up 2,000 words as Steven King aims to. Maybe they’re just jotting down a line or an idea that comes to them. Maybe they’re talking about Facebook posts!
I don’t know. What I do know is that successful writers write A LOT. Often enough to keep momentum.
And when they’re not actually typing well-crafted sentences, they’re thinking about their projects.
Stop worrying about arbitrarily imposed schedules. Here’s what I recommend you do instead:
Give your story some love every single day.
You don’t have to do this. You have my permission to call yourself a writer if you don’t, but trust me that you’ll progress much faster if you do. Even if you don’t have time to get your butt in a chair, think about your book. Read a few pages, look over your outline or premise, ponder a tricky plot problem, talk to someone about a related topic, daydream about a favorite scene or character. This daily habit has nothing to do with measuring up or working “enough.” You do this so your book is what benefits from the creative surges that come while your conscious mind is distracted by driving, showering, walking, or even sleeping. If your book isn’t top of mind, your unconscious will be composing work emails, rehearsing political arguments, fretting over forgotten to-dos` or some other banality. Ask me how I know this!
Rather than crafting a biting retort to an internet troll, ensure that your Eureka moments include plot twists and character revelations and killer opening lines. (In case you didn’t google Jill’s genius opening line, here it is: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.”)
Write often. Even if you don’t have time. Even if you’re not inspired.
First, to finish a book-length work, you’ll need dogged determination. But even more important, you need to develop and maintain your storytelling muscle. Just like you can’t sit on your ass all month and then workout for 30 hours straight, you have to practice writing at regular intervals. Here’s an example. When I was a magazine editor, I had to frequently exercise the muscle that comes up with punny headlines. I got so good at this that I saw them everywhere I looked – sunglasses with an MP3 player? Eye-Tunes. Orange County film locations? The Reel OC.
I don’t practice these corny old-school headlines anymore, so that muscle has atrophied as badly as my post-baby abs.
If you only ever write when you have an abundance of time or when you feel inspired, you won’t get better and writing won’t get easier.
Worse, you’ll only feel like a writer every now and then. And aren’t you doing this because you want to live a creative life?
Recognize burn out.
As a writing mentor or coach, one of my biggest jobs is to keep people going when they have the urge to quit or they get mired in writer’s block. But every now and then, I have to convince an ambitious writer to take some time off. We all occasionally stare at blank screens, and we all sometimes question our books’ value and wonder what we were thinking when we started them. That’s normal. However, if day after day, you’re forcing yourself to type words you don’t like, if you dread even the thought of your book, or you’re plowing through so it’ll be done already and you can never think about it again, then stop pushing. TAKE A BREAK. Get away from the computer. Catch up on sleep. Read purely for pleasure. Interact with the world. Live! Trust that fallow periods can nourish the creative soil. (Unless you’re on deadline. Then consult your editor.)
Plan for setbacks+ have a way back in.
Whether you’re taking a needed break, anticipating a life event, or you get blindsided by an emergency, life will stop you from writing for extended periods of time. It’s all too easy to get lost in the “where do I even start” overwhelm and never return to the project. You need a low-pressure, easy-to-follow path to lead you back in. If your hiatus is in any way foreseeable, you can draw up a specific plan for where to pick up your story. I recommend scheduling it in your calendar. You might plan to edit a specific page, flesh out a half-baked scene, complete a certain chapter, brainstorm the next plot point, research an important topic, listen to a pre-arranged playlist that reminds you of an emotion or a setting or a character.
Knowing that we’ll all be caught off guard sometimes, you can also have a generic plan for reigniting your writing. Exercises are a great place to start, as are books or movies related to your idea, or you could even join a class to set momentum and accountability.
Next time you’re looking for an exercise to get you going again, check out these books:
The 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley. With more than 200 exercise, this handbook is practically guaranteed to give you a jumpstart.
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Edited by Tara L. Masih. This gem rounds up genius essays and exercises by authors such as Steve Almond, Stuart Dybek and Pia Z. Ehrhardt.
Sleeping On the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing. This one is obviously geared toward poets, and I am no poet, but when I’ve let myself attempt the prompts in this book, I’ve gotten a lot of value out of the emotion and imagination in my truly shitty poems.
If your break is ever caused by or ends up causing self-loathing, here are some ways to get your mojo back.
What about you? Do you write every day? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.